Roberto Bolaño — 2666

I think it’s fair to say that the gushing press reviews of 2666 (2008) have glossed over its shortcomings. In dwelling on them here, I don’t mean to diminish the status of Roberto Bolaño’s achievement in this opus postumum, newly translated into English by Natasha Wimmer. 2666 is a serious and weighty work that will no doubt be studied in academia for many years to come.

But critics don’t always see the wood for the trees. 2666 has a verdant clump of postmodern trees (it’s self-referential, ironic, amoral, hypertextual, digressive, transgressive, subversive… ) but the wood has somehow gone AWOL — the novel is exhausting, dispiriting and almost unreadable. It would be futile to attempt a plot synopsis here. There are countless strands, each appearing from nowhere and ending abruptly. 2666 is a panorama of dreams and hallucinations and murders and rapes; a book populated by one-armed painters, mad poets, sacraphobes and Nazis; enormous and disjointed, violent and grotesque, and very difficult to actually enjoy at any stage.

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Everything is done to ludicrous excess: this is a book in which individual sentences can last five pages and paragraphs even longer. It’s a book in which, infuriatingly, three hundred pages are given over, virtually without interruption, to forensic descriptions of the violent murders of women. The problem with this sequence is not that it wallows in depraved violence, but that the grim repetition is numbingly tedious. Emotionally, for all its absurd scope (why read ten different novels when you can read one by Roberto Bolaño?), 2666 is as cold and dead as its female characters.

I’m not blaming Bolaño. 2666 is a first draft. Tragically, Bolaño died before editing and redrafting could take place. He left behind manuscripts for a series of five books, which his estate decided to cobble together and publish in a single volume, under a possibly meaningless numerical title Roberto had once suggested. All five parts involve the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa, but the links between the parts are pretty tenuous and the book reads more like an anthology than a novel. This can’t be helped. But it can’t be papered-over either.

Ah well, say the critics: one book can’t have everything, and this does have all kinds of postmodern bells and whistles. My reply: sorry, but it doesn’t get the basics right. Of course great authors take the novel far beyond the conventional “A to B via C” storytelling of its more populist forms, but, in so doing, they remember their readers. From Dostoevsky to Coetzee, Dickens to Bellow, Faulkner to García Márquez, great authors never forget to make you care about what happens next. In Bolaño’s hellish postmodern creation, the silent contract between reader and author is broken: there’s nothing to care about, nothing at stake, and no reason to keep reading.

I suppose most people who have read it so far think differently. Me and 2666 enjoyed each other’s company even less than me and The Da Vinci Code. If you’re looking for a cleverer review than mine, try Open Letters — this is quite brilliant. And there’s more at Just William’s Luck.

April 14, 2009 at 8:50 pm 4 comments

Junot Díaz — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I tend to think that novels shouldn’t read like short story anthologies. But The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) does read like a short story anthology, and is still a great novel. Junot Díaz packs stories from three generations into his Dominican family saga, united by a connection to the brief and wondrous life of a second-generation Dominican immigrant in America, Oscar “Wao” de Léon.

In the mix are tales of the nerdy and hapless Oscar himself, of his granddad Abelard, of his mother Belí and of his sister Lola; they stretch from 1940s Santo Domingo to 1990s New Jersey. But the hopping around in space, time and perspective doesn’t make for a disjointed read. On the contrary, the book builds up a rattling momentum. The more you learn about this family, the more you want to know where fate will take it next.

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Oscar Wao is warm, genuine and life-affirming, a book populated by likeable dreamers struggling against the odds, each rendered by Díaz with humour and vitality. It’s a Pulitzer-winner that’s already been praised to the hilt, and rightly so — so I won’t get lost in superlatives here. I’m just going to sum up some of Oscar Wao‘s most memorable elements.

1. The spanglish

Listen palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo!

Díaz’s prose is peppered with Spanish vernacular — “Oscar Wao”, Oscar’s college nickname, is “Oscar Wilde” with a Hispanic accent. Sometimes it’s pretty hard going for a poor monolingual like me. I felt like an interloper, sneaking in on a story meant for a Hispanic audience, sometimes only getting the gist of the dialogue. But somehow the result is an experience far richer and more authentic than it would’ve been had everything been implausibly rendered in perfect English. This is how the characters speak and think, and giving the narration this true-to-life patois, though a bold move, was the right thing to do.

2. The magic

What can I tell you? In Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow.

Oscar Wao is full of talk of curses and countercurses, men without faces, and the strange black mongoose of fate. It’s almost magical realism, only that, for Oscar, the only mythology that really counts is that of the comic books and fantasy novels he reads (and writes) obsessively. So our third-person narrator quotes wisdom from JRR Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Alan Moore, and mixes up Domican folk mythology with references to Dune, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. It’s a wonderful cross-cultural cocktail.

Is Díaz mocking the magical realists here? I don’t think so. He’s showing that our allegedly “disenchanted” modern pop culture can imbue things with as much fantastical significance as any ancient superstitition. Oscar’s interpretation of the past is inflected with the fantasy tropes of his American-nerd present.

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3. The politics

There was such fear, the sickening blood-draining fear of a drawn pistol, of waking up to find a man standing over your bed, but held, a note sustained indefinitely.

Oscar Wao tells of a people crushed under the yoke of Rafael Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s cruellest dictators — and that’s saying something. Like Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, 1985), Díaz confronts one of the grimmest episodes in the story of the New World.

How do you write about something like that? How do you touch wounds so deep in the Dominican psyche? Díaz tackles the issue almost head-on. He doesn’t merely hint at or symbolize the murderous, state-sanctioned violence of those times. He doesn’t shy away from the big picture — he exposes you to the gritty details of Trujillo’s thuggery. He remembers the genocides, the denunciations, the Secret Police and the Kafkaesque surprise arrests, he remembers who was murdered, when and how.

So why “almost” head-on? Because most of the gore is put into footnotes. Yes, footnotes, in a novel. A brave and clever move, because, as Tolstoy saw, grand historical arcs should be secondary to the lives and deaths of real human beings. Díaz remembers Trujillo, often comparing him to Sauron — but he demotes him. Trujillo doesn’t deserve to be a protagonist in this story, so his evil deeds are shoved outside the main text.

The end product is not a political novel. It’s a novel set against a backdrop of brutality and oppression that casts a long shadow, but in which centre stage is reserved for a handful of human beings driven only by the hope of love, acceptance and survival.

March 25, 2009 at 12:00 pm 5 comments

Steve Fuller — Dissent over Descent

The wonderful thing about Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), whatever you make of the theory advanced within it, is the way it’s written. For anyone who wants to make a scientific argument, Darwin is the exemplar. Be cautious, never dogmatic. Infer, never assert. Base your reasoning on hard evidence, never the word of other authors. I can’t help but think that, when held up next to Darwin’s classic, Steve Fuller’s silly and shallow defence of Intelligent Design, Dissent over Descent (2008), reveals the intellectual gulf between the two rival theories.

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The strange thing about Fuller’s book is that I doubt it’s the kind of defence a typical Intelligent Design advocate (say, Michael Behe or William Dembski) would actually want to hear. Fuller stood up for Creationism at the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District (2005) court case, but he’s actually a sociologist — not a biologist, and not a Christian fundamentalist either. He’s on the frontline in the “science wars” — he’s the sort of postmodernist academic Alan Sokal parodied in his famous hoax.

So what does Fuller believe? He sets out his credo in the introduction:

While I cannot honestly say that I believe in a divine personal creator, no plausible alternative has yet been offered to justify the pursuit of science as a search for the ultimate systematic understanding of reality.

It’s not that Fuller prefers Bible stories to scientific stories. He thinks neither gives us an understanding of reality. Fuller’s cynicism about Darwin’s theory appears to be motivated by an all-pervading scepticism about the ability of science to tell us anything about reality at all. Evidence of this scepticism — this fundamental doctrine that science is not to be trusted, that its claims are “unjustified” — can be found all the way through.

Fuller’s stance here rests implicitly on the philosopher David Hume’s (1711-1776) brand of scepticism about the unity (or uniformity) of nature. We don’t know, says Hume, that nature is lawful and predictable. We don’t know that the future will be like the past, or that unobserved instances of a given phenomenon will be like the observed instances. So we don’t know that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the vacuum in my lab is like outer space, or that the bacteria in my Petri dish are like bacteria in the soil. And we don’t know (pace Darwin and Charles Lyell) that the world we live in was formed by natural processes acting constantly and regularly for millions of years. Hume’s challenge to commonsense reasoning is the problem of induction, and to justify scientific claims about the world like Darwin’s, we need a response to Hume.

About 50 pages in, I suddenly realized that Fuller, whether he realizes it or not, is in the grip of Humean scepticism:

STS researchers do not question the actual results of scientific inquiry, only the larger significance ascribed to them: what licenses extrapolations from the lab or the field to the world at large?

He assumes that, since there is no obvious answer, scientists actually “make the world conform to the lab or field”.  He tells us that “incentives and conduits are introduced to ensure that the world behaves in accordance with the findings”.  He reveals that “calling something ‘scientific’ is to sign a blank cheque to construct the world in the image and likeness of our theories”. Finally, he delivers his grand verdict, in italics:

Scientists can only make sense of a world they could have created.

The success of modern science, then, “certainly vindicates the idea that nature has been designed with sufficient intelligence to be susceptible to purposeful human modification.”

I suppose what Fuller is proposing here is a kind of “God Solution” to the problem of induction. To have knowledge of the world, we must believe the world to have been intelligently designed. Reject this and, according to Fuller, inquiry into nature will seem futile.

This is bizarre. Fuller’s stance is apparently that the world has to have been intelligently designed for us to have scientific knowledge of it. I don’t think any rigorous argument can be made in defence of this, and Fuller certainly doesn’t have one. The upshot of Hume’s sceptical argument is, arguably, that we just have to presuppose that nature is lawful and predictable. We have to presuppose that we can infer from our data to the facts about the world. But we don’t also have to presuppose that the world was intelligently designed.

So Darwin, examining his Galapagos specimens, had to presuppose the uniformity of nature in order to consider them representative of living beings from the Galapagos. And he had to presuppose the uniformity of nature to maintain that life on the Galapagos was formed by the same processes as life everywhere else. But what Darwin discovered, given these simple presuppositions, was that this could all have come about without an intelligent designer. Presuppose only the existence of regular, mechanical laws of nature, and suddenly you can explain the origin of species.

Dissent over Descent is a mess. Arrogant, rambling and unpersuasive, it’s provocative for the sake of being provocative, full of odd sociology jargon and sweeping generalizations. But I’m glad I read it — because it reveals how thin some of the arguments against the theory of evolution really are. Read this, read the Origin, and decide for yourself. I gave Fuller a hearing, and there was nothing to hear.

March 18, 2009 at 3:05 pm 5 comments

Philip Roth — The Ghost Writer

No one writes books about Philip Roth quite as well as Philip Roth. Sometimes I feel as though I know more about what it’s like to be a male Jewish writer from Newark than I know about what it’s like to be me. The Ghost Writer (1979) is one of Roth’s many semi-autobiographical fictions, and the first to feature enduring Roth alterego Nathan Zuckerman.

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… I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman

Zuckerman, an up-and-coming literary star of the 1950s, stays one night in the remote home of his reclusive literary idol, E. I. Lonoff. He’s joined by Lonoff’s emotionally frayed wife, Hope, and his beautiful young possible-mistress, Amy Bellette.

Lonoff is an aging man weighed down by the burden of his art, and the ruin a lifetime of “turning sentences around” has inflicted on his marriage. Zuckerman is a young man weighed down by the burden of Jewish identity. His father has turned on him, accusing him of betraying the Jews by portraying them in a negative light. Roth suffered similar criticism after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959).

During the night, strange things happen. Lonoff has a spectacular clash with Hope and a mysterious erotic encounter with Amy. Nathan, an accidental spectator to Lonoff’s bizarre private life, mulls over how to win back his father’s support.

Outrageously, he starts to harbour the delusion that Amy is Anne Frank, living in America under an assumed name. This, he thinks, will solve his problem: if he marries Anne Frank, people won’t be able to call him a bad Jew any more.

The Ghost Writer is a wry and touching portrayal of the pitfalls of literary life. An old writer who seems to have everything turns out to be trapped and miserable. A young writer who seems to have everything turns out to be cracking under the weight of expectation.

It’s a slim novel telling a simple tale, and as such lacks the monumental significance of Roth’s later masterworks. But in its own discreet way, it’s every bit as touched by greatness. I think of Roth’s writing hand as some kind of wild animal, loosely tethered to the genius in his head. Like all Roth’s best work, The Ghost Writer is scabrous, irreverent, wacky and witty. Unlike most of Roth’s best work, you can read it in a spare afternoon.

February 25, 2009 at 10:35 am 2 comments

Peter Singer — The Life You Can Save

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975), is a well-known guru of “applied ethics”, though perhaps an equally accurate term for it would be “secular preaching”. In this compact and fiercely argued piece of pop philosophy, Singer turns his attention to Third World poverty.

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Singer starts off in typically aggressive fashion, arguing that it is wrong not to give as much of your income as you can to development charities. He then argues that Western nations, America in particular, don’t give very much to such charities. He discusses how we could persuade people to give more, which charities are pound-for-pound most effective, and how small donations make a big difference in the Third World.

In the final chapters, he goes into turbo-preaching mode. He tells us how our lives need to change to meet his demands. He presents a complex sliding scale, where the well-off give 5% of their income, and the superrich give a third. He openly admits this is a compromise: we ought to give far more. He then slams celebrities who fail to meet his standard, such as Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire who has given a mere $900m to charity.

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Singer is a famous utilitarian, and there is lots of utilitarianism behind the scenes here. The basic argument is roughly that, if something is bad (i.e. a person suffering from poverty), and you can prevent it by sacrificing something less important (i.e. your disposable income), it is wrong not to do so.

The difficulty, even if you accept utilitarianism, is that weighing up benefits versus costs like this is notoriously tricky. Singer flags up a problem for his own position: if Warren Buffett had given away his first $1m, he would never have been able to give away the $30bn he has now pledged. So by reinvesting rather than donating his $1m he “saved lives” — thousands of them.

Singer uses the phrase “saving a life” loosely, as referring to the alleviation of a person’s suffering as a consequence of the work of development charities. On this definition, it’s impossible to tell what will “save” more lives: giving now, or investing your money so that you can do more later. We never know the consequences in advance when we donate now or invest for later, so we never know in advance which option will do most for the greater good.

Because of this, the phrase “saving a life” is inappropriate. It’s emotive. It makes you think that giving money to the world’s poor is something equivalent to diving into a pond to save a drowning child — a comparison Singer actually makes. But you’re not diving into a pond: you’re sponsoring a particular long-term cause from a distance. There’s no shame in holding on to your money in the short-term, and there’s no shame in using your money to sponsor another cause instead.

I agree broadly with Singer’s sentiment. The problem of poverty is troubling. Of course it is.  But I don’t like his “naming and shaming” strategy, and there’s a question mark over his basic argument. And there is another more practical problem for Singer: his view implies that no one should buy this book. How can you justify buying a hardback when children in Africa are starving?

February 24, 2009 at 10:27 am 7 comments

The “Father of Biology”

Historians don’t consider themselves in the business of hero-worship, but for Charles Darwin they almost make an exception. In the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species, academia’s “Darwin industry” has spawned libraries full of biographical detail and textual interpretation. Elements of Darwin’s biography have reached the status of legend in the popular imagination: the Beagle voyage, the Galapagos finches, the 20-year wait before publishing, the religious wrangling over the implications of his theory: if you aren’t tired of hearing the story yet, you will be by the end of the year, when Cambridge’s celebrations will have reached their apotheosis and Paul Bettany will be re-enacting Darwin’s life in cinemas. Darwin is the “father” of biology, the exemplary “great scientist.” But what did one man do to earn such epithets?

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Individuals vary. Their traits are heritable. Some individuals reproduce more successfully than others, and the traits of these individuals are better represented in the next generation. Over millions of years, by means of “natural selection,” or “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” species evolve. This is Charles Darwin’s big idea, but, increasingly, it is our idea too: in the hands of a century of popularizers from T.H. Huxley to Richard Dawkins, it has been held aloft as the crowning glory of the Western scientific enterprise, and our best explanation for why we exist.

Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s slogan that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” has become a catchphrase for the contemporary study of life; and this shows how the impact of evolutionary theory extends outside the textbooks—it embodies an ideology of science, the belief that, through constructing mechanistic accounts of the causal history of living things, we shed light on the secrets of the world. In a culture in which the spirit of Enlightenment is tainted with the guilt over what followed, in which science is associated as much with atom bombs and CFCs as with human progress, Darwin’s theory is the case for the defence.

But it would be misleading to think Darwin’s status derives entirely from his idea. Indeed, it’s arguably misleading to call evolutionary theory his idea, though his causal contribution to modern biology is not in doubt. Darwin grew up in a culture where evolution was, so to speak, in the air. In the early decades of the 19th Century, Britain’s genteel community of wealthy scientific enthusiasts dedicated much time and ink to combating the radical French evolutionism of Lamarck and Geoffroy. In 1844, evolutionary controversy exploded in Britain with the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an ambitious speculation telling of the progression of life up a chain of being from spontaneously generated simple organisms through to mankind.

The growing fossil evidence of extinct life forms needed an explanation: such theories filled a niche. Darwin did for the study of life what Charles Lyell, his friend and inspiration, had done for geology. Lyell proposed the uniformitarian principle: that the geology we see today is best explained by small, currently-active forces acting over staggeringly long periods of time. When Darwin set off on the Beagle, filled with Romantic dreams of finding unifying laws of nature after reading Alexander von Humboldt’s travelogues, he took Lyell’s book along with him, and took his principle to heart.

Darwin’s theoretical innovation was a not the idea of evolution but a new mechanism for its occurrence. A very speculative mechanism, of course—scientific objections to his theory were warranted and widespread. Why should advantageous traits spread through the population? Wouldn’t they end up diluted, swamped by the prevailing disadvantageous traits? And how did these traits arise at all? And could complex traits really develop like this? The 20th Century culture of laboratory testing and mathematical modelling expanded, quantified and reinforced Darwin’s ideas to answer such questions—it is largely through the work of 1930s scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher that today’s “modern synthesis” theory was born. Darwin is not the author of modern evolutionary theory, and to credit theories to the first person to contribute “significant” work is a dubious practice. So is he really the “father” of biology?

I think so, but not because of his idea. Darwin was venerated long before the notion of natural selection had acquired the widespread acceptance it enjoys today. He was given a state funeral, celebrated as a genius, venerated on his first centenary, largely by people who judged his central hypothesis to be wrong. It was his personal virtues, his fatherly qualities no less, that earned him the reverence he continues to receive. Darwin is portrayed as the iconic “gentleman of science”: wise, moral, conscientious, companionable and modest. And no amount of industrial historical research has disproved the hypothesis that really did live up to these attributes.

When allies like Ernst Haeckel defended natural selection through brash confrontation, Darwin advised them against it. While Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” forcefully took the argument for evolution to its critics, Darwin (for reasons of health and modesty) confined himself to his home at Down, Kent, where he lived with his devoutly Unitarian wife, Emma. When correspondents asked Darwin if his theory was incompatible with Creationism and other Christian beliefs, he gave guarded replies, professing to be “muddled” by the matter; and the thorny issue of the origins of man was never broached in the Origin. Despite his doubts on matters of religious doctrine, he continued to support his local parish church; and though appearing increasingly to withhold belief in God in later life, he preferred the neologism “agnostic” to the more confrontational “atheist.”

Darwin’s work is a testament to the value of perseverance and painstaking effort. Lucky enough to have the inherited wealth necessary to avoid paid work, he filled his time with science. He was a careful and gifted writer, and his bewildering attention to detail in the study of barnacles, of botany, of domesticated animals, and of fancy pigeons in the groundwork for the Origin upheld his overt commitment to the “inductive method”: in the code of 19th Century men of science, this amounted to the imperative that obsessive fact collection must come before speculative theorizing.

In later life, he mentored countless botanists through correspondence: Down became the hub of an international network of botanical knowledge. Darwin’s enterprise was truly collective, and the many friends he made in scientific circles ensured his immaculate reputation. Darwin’s theory of evolution was the first deemed respectable by the genteel scientific community because the man behind it was respected. The virtues that earned him this status continue to impress and inspire his disciples today.

Varsity 23/01/09

February 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm 4 comments

Marilynne Robinson — Home

I mistakenly thought Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2008 ) was a sequel to Gilead (2004). It’s not. It’s contemporaneous — the same story from a different perspective, though knowledge of the earlier Pulitzer-winning novel is assumed. One almost wonders whether Home started life as a notebook for Gilead. Ever wondered what supporting characters in novels do when they’re not on the page? No? Well now you can find out anyway. It’s probably a good idea to leave all your expectations at the door with Home, as its markedly different to Robinson’s previous novels.

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Whereas Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead were masterful fictionalized memoirs that dove deep into their narrator’s personal and family history, Home is a reasonably straightforward, third-person, temporally-continuous narrative. Jack Boughton arrives home after twenty years to live in the desolate house of his ailing minister father, Robert, and his heartbroken spinster sister, Glory, whom Robinson describes with particular tenderness:

She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent. She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross that threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust. Ah well.

Though the narration often looks-in on the thoughts of Glory (now all but a servant to her father), she is primarily a spectator to the comings and goings of Jack, who is the central driving force in the plot. In his childhood, he fathered a child and ran away. He returns from his time in the wilderness disgraced, determined to win the support of his father and the Rev’d John Ames (his namesake and the narrator of Gilead), hoping against hope to build a settled life for himself in this isolated Iowa town, dreaming that his black wife will return to him from St Louis.

It sounds like the setup for a great novel. And it is. But that novel is Gilead. Home pales in comparison. Housekeeping and Gilead are wonderful for their subjectivity, their whimsical, unreliable narration, full of little reminisces, stories from long ago and (in Ames’s case) offhand insights regarding theology. Home is practically a study of boredom: it’s three miserable, ordinary people, living in an empty house. It’s Big Brother 1956.

The book’s redeeming strength is, unsurprisingly, Robinson’s sensational descriptive prose. I was left nonplussed by Home, but I still say without hesitation that Robinson is one of the best stylists of English I’ve ever come across, and the magician that wowed the world with Housekeeping is still in evidence here — notably when describing the slow decay of a house through time:

Other pious families gave away the things they did not need. Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity. Then, what with the business of life and the passage of time, what with the pungency of mothballs and the inevitable creep of dowdiness through any stash of old clothes, however smart they might have been when new, it became impossible to give the things away.

… or the inner turmoil of poor Glory, arguably a dead ringer for Housekeeping‘s Sylvie:

She had learned to compose her face, so that from a distance she would not necessarily seem to be weeping, and then they made a little game of catching her at it — tears, they would say. Ah, tears. She thought how considerate it would have been of nature to allow the venting of feeling through the palm of a hand or even the sole of a foot.

Robinson can still write a stunning sentence, but this whole is less than the sum of its parts.

February 11, 2009 at 10:46 am 2 comments

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